Tip Sheets

Veteran editor offers tips for finding health stories on any beat

By Mark Katches

In newsrooms across the country that are shedding staff, teams of health and medical reporters have been reduced to a solitary, overworked journalist left to cover the gamut of health-related stories.

If they're not tracking the latest swine or H1N1 flu developments, they're probably trying to get their arms around health care reform, rising medical costs and the latest breakthroughs to fight disease and treat patients.

The beat is too big for any one person.

That creates lots of opportunities for other reporters in the newsroom to fill the void if they are attuned to how health and medical stories intersect with their own beats – and how these stories touch the lives of real people.

All reporters and assignment editors should look at the broad topic of health as a thick thread that runs through just about every newsroom beat.

This tip sheet is meant to be a primer to editors and reporters in newsrooms big and small to start thinking differently about their beat coverage and to identify health stories on "non-health" beats. Some beats, like the environment, have clearer connections to health. But they can just as easily be found on the education, business and local, regional and state government beats.

"If you simply think about all the ways that government, education, business, the environment, even law enforcement intersect with people as patients and health consumers you will start seeing the pathways to new sources and new documents," says William Heisel, a former investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register, where he was twice a Pulitzer finalist on health-related stories. "Don't think of health stories as the latest study to link a bad habit to cancer. Think of them as ways to make any number of beats more personal."

Rather than a list of 20 things that might be too overwhelming to absorb, I'd like to offer a few key points that I've developed with lots of assistance from some great reporter and editor friends.

All reporters and assignment editors should look at the broad topic of health as a thick thread that runs through just about every newsroom beat.
"All reporters and assignment editors should look at the broad topic of health as a thick thread that runs through just about every newsroom beat." (Photo: parl via Flickr)

1. Recalibrate how you look at your beat. Raquel Rutledge is an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And she has good advice: Put yourself in the shoes of the subjects of stories you're covering and health issues will inevitably surface. "Much like we ask ourselves in every case ‘what's the impact on taxpayers?' we can also ask ‘What's the impact on individuals or collective health and the health-care systems?'" Rutledge says. "Education has a ton of connections. For example, as you look at stories about budget cuts you see the link that kids and don't have gym class as often and that leads to the obesity story."

Rutledge isn't a health reporter. Her investigative beat at the Journal Sentinel focuses on consumer watchdog issues. And she's found great health stories by thinking more like a parent than a reporter. One such story developed when she learned that at-risk children in Wisconsin weren't getting tested for lead poisoning - even though it was a federal mandate for doctors to conduct these tests. With a little poking around, Rutledge found that the vast majority of doctors were blowing off the requirement.

"It helps when reporters have a strong interest in a subject and a keen sense for a story," she said. "I personally happen to be very interested in health so I'm always looking at issues through that lens. Reporters on all beats, no matter what, need to be on the constant hunt for stories of all kinds. If they are doing that, they will come across health-related stories."

2. Think about all the ways people are harmed. If you sat down and started to write a list of all the ways that kids, families, workers and communities are placed at risk or in harm's way, it could get pretty depressing fast. But it's important work to pinpoint stories that need to be told. The best journalism calls attention to a problem, prompts debate and sparks change that can eliminate or curtail the threat. The bigger the harm, and the wider the scope the more important it is to tell that story quickly and with authority and clarity.

"I would encourage editors and reporters to forget the boundary lines of beats and instead ask themselves this: What are all the different ways people are needlessly harmed. Use that as a starting point," says investigative reporter Sam Roe of the Chicago Tribune.

Roe was part of a team that won the Pulitzer two years ago for a series of stories called "Hidden Hazards." The Tribune team broke one mind-blowing story after another about dangerous toys, deadly cribs and other products that showcased the failures of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"We know that folks are harmed, sometimes fatally, for all kinds of reasons, whether it is from unsafe food, environmental toxins or workplace exposures," Roe said. "These issues don't fall neatly into any one beat area, and for that very reason they often fly under the radar screen."

Roe notes that some of the best health stories in recent years have not come off the traditional health beats. They include unsanitary conditions at Walter Reed, lead-tainted toys and unsafe peanuts. 

"I know I have spent much of my career digging into public health topics, and I don't think any of my stories came off the health beat," Roe said. "These stories included the deadly hazards of the metal beryllium; unsafe levels in mercury in seafood; inaccurate food labels that harm kids with allergies, and the misuse of anti-psychotic drugs in nursing homes. So the stories are out there - big ones, too."

There are countless other stories that can be done in the schools - starting with the cleanliness of the school cafeteria and the school lunch menus. How nutritious are the meals?

As you start to think about stories like this, consider the regulators. What agencies are supposed to protect us? Are they doing their job or are they letting the public down? What agencies are supposed to keep our water safe? That question touches both the environment and government beats. What agency is supposed to monitor and regulate worker safety? That question hits the business beat. Who inspects restaurants and school cafeterias? That touches government and education beats.

Ellen Gabler is an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune focusing on consumer issues. She previously worked for me in Milwaukee, where she built a database of local restaurant inspections and updated it monthly. Every time she updated the data, it shot to the top of the most popular lists on the Journal Sentinel's Web site. Readers wanted to know how their schools were doing and how their favorite eateries performed.

I can't say it conclusively, but that scrutiny probably prompted food handlers to do a better job because for the very first time, they knew they would be "outed" publicly for unsanitary conditions that could put kids or diners at risk - and could drive away customers. We started to notice a drop in really bad inspection reports. Our theory: Most restaurants and cafeterias - not all - started to get their act together.

3. Figure out who is making the money. In the midst of a crippling recession, health care is one of the few growth industries in the United States. There are countless stories to be told here - and myriad opportunities for business reporters to get into the act. Let's just focus on one: The story of the swine flu vaccine may be one of the most intriguing business stories in America. While health and medical reporters focus on the delivery and effectiveness of the vaccine, business reporters should be focusing on who is getting rich off swine flu. While we're on the swine flu topic, the slow delivery of the vaccine has raised questions about the effectiveness of government agencies that are supposed to be coordinating distribution during a national emergency. That leads to more fertile ground.

4. Create a working group in your newsroom to brainstorm about ideas. Because health transcends so many beats, any editor who oversees health and medical coverage should really extend their sphere of influence. This can be done by simply walking the newsroom and asking reporters what types of health stories they are seeing on their beats.

This may catch some reporters by surprise at first - reporters who aren't used to any kind of question from editors beyond "when are you filing? "and "when can I see that budget line?" But someone has to take the initiative to keep the conversation going.

The biggest mistake editors can make is to say "we want more watchdog stories." Or "we want more health stories." And then never follow through. Keep the topic alive by talking about it. I would encourage assignment editors to ask all their beat reporters to add at least one health-related story idea to their story list. Then make sure to praise those who take the initiative to pursue these stories and press a little harder on the reporters who don't take your cue. If I've learned anything in management it is this: You can't just say something once and expect it to stick.

I'd also encourage editors to organize a monthly brownbag lunch session for reporters to talk about health stories on their beats. "Have a newsroom dialog among those knowledgeable about health issues and hot trends, problems, etc. with those who seldom cover it," suggests Rutledge. "Reporters are people and when they hear from the beat experts about what's going on, they can relate to events in their own personal lives and see the connections. It sounds like common sense but sometimes we overlook the basics."

Mark Katches is the editorial director for California Watch. As the deputy managing editor for projects and investigations at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he directed and edited the newspaper's pension project that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. In 2009, he edited a series of stories about dangerous chemicals that was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He also has worked at The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Daily News. He served four years on the board of directors of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.